The phrase deus ex machina is one that you’ve likely encountered throughout your literary travels. Latin for god from the machine, it describes an unexpected and sudden event which saves a hopeless situation.
Allegedly, the phrase’s roots go all the way back to ancient Greece, where many a play would see an actor lowered from above the stage, performing the role of an intervening deity who has arrived to bring an end to the drama, tie off story threads, and close any plot holes in one majestic swoop.
No genre is safe from the machinery of the gods, as you can see in these quick examples from modern stories in literature and cinema:
- The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: The giant eagles swooping in to save the day when protagonists are trapped by lava/stuck on a tall tower/need a quick exit.
- The Princess Bride: Wesley suddenly reveals his immunity to a certain poison. (Though this could be argued.)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Tom Sawyer reenters the story, traveling hundreds of miles to visit relatives, enabling him to be on hand to rescue Jim.
- Dodgeball: The good guys are saved due to a treasure chest filled with money turning up. In a satirical turn, it even says Deus Ex Machina on the outside of the chest.
It might seem a simple matter to identify when this particular plot device appears, yet there are many stories that are cited as falling prey to deus ex machina when they arguably do not. One of the most famous examples may be H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Some writers, readers, and critics would assert that the defeat of the aliens by natural bacteria is unexpected and therefore a ‘god from a machine’ ending (apologies for the spoilers)…
But it might not be, in actuality.
And why not?
That’s because Wells used foreshadowing at the beginning of the book to plant the seed of a bacterial savior. Look at the first paragraph of his novel:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
It is subtle – extremely so – yet this foreshadowing offers a clue to the ultimate ending.
Why is Deus Ex Machina Frowned Upon?
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at why, generally, the deus ex machina is a device that should be avoided.
Primarily, it’s because it is not seen as divine intervention, but instead as lazy writing.
The need for a deus ex machina usually arises when an author has written themselves into a corner – having thrown the protagonist into a situation that is so escalated and perilous that escape is, within the logical confines of the surrounding story, impossible.
The only solution, save going back and rewriting the events that led to this trap, is to break the internal logic of the fictional world and offer up a solution that – often as a side effect of this logical break – appears to come out of nowhere.
These unexpected and sudden solutions to a dramatic moment (especially the climax!) can leave readers feeling disappointed and unsatisfied – which is why the deus ex machina is so loathed.
How to Avoid Deus Ex Machina
Most of the ‘god from a machine’ moments you’ll come across are unsatisfying because they rely on dumb luck saving the day. The crisis resolution comes down to little more than a happy coincidence.
To change a deus ex machina into a believable plot twist, you need to lay some groundwork for your reader.
First, plan your story arc. If you want your character to be saved by a magical sword, for example, you need to know this in advance. Make sure you tie that item or external force strongly to the events your protagonist goes through. You don’t have to give anything away until the end, but this ‘savior’ should be a regular feature that becomes part of your hero’s story – because readers appreciate stories where the character solves their own problems through something they did (or didn’t) do. In many cases, this is the unlocking of the previously hidden properties that allow otherwise benign story elements to become the savior.
Next, and tied to the previous tip, you need to foreshadow. Leave little clues to allow the reader to feel the solution is believable, and not entirely unexpected. These clues don’t need to be overt – some might go unnoticed until the book is read for a second time. Seed those clues correctly, and readers will be wowed!
These simple steps to avoid disappointing your reader will work for most stories, but there’s something else you need: the determination to get it right. We all know it happens, and it can be easier than expected to find yourself boxed in a corner come the finale – especially if you’re a relaxed writer who likes to stay in the flow rather than planning everything from the start.
When you spot yourself conjuring a deus ex machina, it’s a sign that things aren’t falling into line. Yes, getting to this point has been more than enough hard-fought work, and ideally, you just want to wrap things up – but resist the urge to undermine all that work by letting it be.
Write to the end, then go back and see where things veered off course. Most of the time, just a simple correction or the addition of some extra foreshadowing can deliver a much more satisfying climax for your second draft, without having to scrap whole sequences.
An Alternate Solution to Inescapable Corners
If you write your characters into an inescapable corner, the general opinion when you’re trying to figure out a solution is that the hero must still save the day. Therefore, you might feel stuck due to needing to change your story while maintaining the happy ever after.
But is that actually true?
Some of the most life-changing books are those with a ‘sad’ ending. If your hero is trapped, could you instead allow them to get caught up in the tragedy you’re trying to avoid?
Think of George Orwell’s 1984. As a reader, you want the characters to get their happy ending – but in a world of Big Brother and the Thought Police, there is no logical escape. So, Orwell doesn’t give them a happy ending. They’re just too small to stand any chance of overcoming this enemy, no matter how much we might wish it.
Given the dystopian genre of the novel, this solution is more logical than the protagonists skipping off into the sunset. The bleak ending has a huge emotional impact on the reader and is one of the reasons 1984 is so successful.
Keep the God in the Machine?
Okay, so for all the negatives about the deus ex machina, there actually are reasons you might want to keep such an ending… and they’re not because you’re a lazy writer!
Plenty of stories written for children have unbelievable endings – because children can suspend their disbelief more easily than adults can. Also, they don’t tend to over-analyze plots. They’re happy to listen and accept.
If your story is in the fantasy genre, there’s a lot that ‘magic’ can explain. It could be argued that many of the plots in the successful Harry Potter series are deus ex machina, but they’re still beloved books because finding magical swords in hats is generally acceptable in fantasy books at that level.
Finally, like The Princess Bride and Dodgeball show, deus ex machina is always usable for comedic effect – especially if presented with a smile, and a cheeky nod to the literary intelligence of your readers.
If you’re going to keep it, make sure it’s appropriate for both your chosen genre and your intended audience.
Writing an exciting and dramatic climax is vital for a gripping story, and a memorable experience. However, if it’s impossible for your character to escape without an unbelievable or contrived ending, chances are you’re going to disappoint your readers.
So make sure your machine is finely tuned and well oiled, and not in need of divine intervention – but don’t be afraid to take a very different path than you initially believed you would, if that’s what it takes to forge a believable resolution.
What are your thoughts on the deus ex machina plot device? Would you argue ‘til you’re blue in the face that The War of the Worlds is indeed an example? Share a few of your favorite (or least favorite, as the case may be) endings of this kind in the comments below!